Don’t tell any Brussels sprouts, but the new, trendiest food is now the cauliflower.
It is popping up in restaurants everywhere. At the hip Scarpetta in Beverly Hills, it is served grilled, with marcona almonds (also very trendy) and lemon zest. Malt N Mash, in the meatpacking district of Manhattan, serves it up alongside skate, with beech mushrooms. G — a Washington place so hip in only has a first initial — offers it roasted as a sandwich with romesco sauce, pickled vegetables, and paprika, or as a side dish with pine nuts, golden raisins, and capers.
How did a vegetable so simple, so humble, suddenly become where it’s at?
One reason, of course, is that it was so simple and humble. Chefs delight in taking the most ordinary and overlooked foods — again, we’re thinking of Brussels sprouts — and turning them into something extraordinary. It is a culinary challenge, and we, the diners, are the beneficiaries.
Not that long ago, cauliflower was served pretty much one way: boiled, and then smothered with a sauce made from melted cheddar cheese and milk. For a more extravagant version, it was melted cheddar cheese and cream. Basically, it was macaroni and cheese, with cauliflower replacing the macaroni.
And yet, this member of the cabbage family transformed almost overnight from the sort of thing that is served in public high school cafeterias to the centerpiece of this dish at Alinea restaurant in Chicago: cubes of puréed cauliflower dusted in bread crumbs mixed with smoked ham, Parmesan cheese, onion, and almond, swimming in a soup of creamy apple cider.
But even though it has been appropriated and fancified by the best chefs, cauliflower is still a modest little vegetable; it hasn’t let its sudden fame go to its, ahem, head. For one, it’s just too nutritious to bend to the temptations of the limelight. It is high in Vitamins C and K, and is a great source for dietary fiber. It even comes with a significant amount of protein, making it particularly helpful to vegetarians.
And it will never become too aristocratic because it is just so easy to make. You can boil it, steam it, fry it, roast it, or grill it, and it is just as good raw as it is cooked. Nor does it take too long to make; you can make a delicious main course with cauliflower as the featured ingredient in less than half an hour.
The most sophisticated and elegant of the dishes I tried was also the quickest. Seared scallops with cauliflower purée was just what it sounds like: Divinely simple scallops with an exquisite sear (pat scallops dry, apply heat) are placed atop a pool of puréed cauliflower and Yukon gold potatoes.
There is butter in the purée, too, but just a tablespoon and a half for about two cups of purée. It tastes like much more than that because of one of the great secrets of both cauliflower and Yukon gold potatoes — they are so creamy in texture that they intensify the flavor of any butter that is added to them.
That same silken creaminess is also the secret to making a deceptively simple-yet-divine cauliflower soup. You would not think that anything this luxuriously sumptuous could be made out of nothing more than cauliflower, onions, and water. Though your guests will swear it is a cream-based soup, you can assure them it is completely free from any hint of dairy.
The recipe was developed by Paul Bertolli, who for many years was chef at the fabled Chez Panisse, the Berkeley, Calif., restaurant that began the American food revolution. Even knowing his background, I was surprised at how delicately smooth a soup can be made from so few ingredients, so simply prepared.
While Mr. Bertolli recommends serving the soup hot, on a warm day it is equally delicious served chilled, perhaps with a small sprinkling of chives.
Back when cauliflower was still lightly regarded, it did show up frequently in curries. Looking for something a little more rustic, I decided to make a curry for the autumn, with sweet potato along with the cauliflower. Using a recipe from Cooking Light magazine as my guide, I spiced it with an assortment of Indian flavors, such as curry powder, chickpeas, and cilantro, and then added cloves and cinnamon too, which were not in the original recipe.
This, as they say, is a keeper. As the nights become crisper, this aromatic and perfectly proportioned blend of flavors will find its way to your table again and again. And the whole thing takes just 25 minutes to make; you can put it together in the time it takes to boil the rice.
Finally, I wanted to serve cauliflower as it usually appears, as a vegetable side dish. So I turned to a cauliflower recipe so simple it is literally called Simple Cauliflower Recipe. That is not a great name, to be sure, but it is an accurate description for a great dish.
This method of preparing cauliflower takes advantage of the vegetable’s natural nuttiness that comes out especially when it has been browned. A little oil and a little heat get the florets ready for the flavorings you might expect — garlic and Parmesan — and one you might not: a fragrant punch of lemon. This dish stands out in a powerful way because of the zest of one lemon.
Who knew anything so simple could be so trendy?
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- 2 cups chopped cauliflower florets
- 1 cup cubed Yukon gold potato
- 1 cup water
- ½ cup chicken broth
- ¾ teaspoon kosher salt, divided
- 1½ tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper
- 1 tablespoon oil
- 1½ pounds sea scallops
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
Seared Scallops with Cauliflower Purée
Bring cauliflower, potato, water, and broth to a boil in a saucepan; cover, reduce heat, and simmer 6 minutes or until potato is tender. Remove from heat. Let stand, uncovered, 10 minutes.
Pour cauliflower mixture into a blender. Add ½ teaspoon of the salt, butter, and red pepper. Remove center piece of blender lid (to allow steam to escape); secure lid on blender. Place a clean towel over opening in lid to avoid splatters. Blend until smooth.
Heat a large skillet over high heat. Add oil; swirl to coat. Pat scallops dry with paper towels; sprinkle with ¼ teaspoon salt and black pepper. Add scallops to pan; cook 3 minutes on each side or until desired degree of doneness. Serve scallops with purée.
Yield: 4 servings; Source: Cooking Light, via myrecipes.com
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 medium onion (6 ounces), sliced thin
- 1 head very fresh cauliflower, about 1½ pounds, broken into florets
- Salt, to taste
- 5½ cups water, divided, see cook's note
- Extra-virgin olive oil, to taste
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Cook's note: For a richer taste, use 3½ cups water and 2 cups of chicken or vegetable stock.
Warm the oil in a heavy-bottomed pan. Sweat the onion in the olive oil over low heat without letting it brown for 15 minutes.
Add the cauliflower, salt to taste, and ½ cup of the water. Raise the heat slightly, cover the pot tightly, and stew the cauliflower for 15-18 minutes, or until tender. Then add another 4½ cups hot water (or combination of water and stock), bring to a low simmer, and cook, uncovered, an additional 20 minutes.
Working in batches, purée the soup in a blender to a very smooth, creamy consistency. Let the soup stand for 20 minutes, thickening it slightly.
Thin the soup with the remaining ½ cup hot water. Reheat the soup. Serve hot, drizzled with a thin stream of extra-virgin olive oil and black pepper to taste, or chill and serve cold with a few snipped chives.
Yield: 8 servings; Source: Cooking by Hand, by Paul Bertolli, via Food52
- 1½ teaspoons olive oil
- 1 cup diced peeled sweet potato
- 1 cup small cauliflower florets
- ¼ cup thinly sliced yellow onion
- 2 teaspoons Madras curry powder
- ½ cup vegetable or chicken broth
- ¼ teaspoon cloves
- ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas (garbanzo beans), rinsed and drained
- 1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes, preferably fire-roasted, undrained
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
- ½ cup plain Greek yogurt, optional
Fall Vegetable Curry
Heat oil in a large, nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add sweet potato to pan; sauté 3 minutes. Decrease heat to medium. Add cauliflower, onion, and curry powder; cook 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add broth, cloves, cinnamon, salt, chickpeas, and tomatoes with their juice; bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 10 minutes or until vegetables are tender, stirring occasionally. Sprinkle with cilantro.
Serve with yogurt on the side, if desired, to temper the spices.
Yield: 4 servings; Source: Adapted from Cooking Light
- ½ large head of cauliflower
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- A couple pinches salt
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 small bunch of chives, chopped
- Zest of 1 lemon
- Parmesan, freshly grated, to taste
- Flaky sea salt, optional
Simple Cauliflower Recipe
Trim away the thick stem of the cauliflower from the middle, and cut the remainder into small, grape-sized florets. Try to keep them about the same size, so they cook at the same rate. Rinse and drain.
Heat the oil and the ordinary or kosher salt in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add the cauliflower and stir until the florets are coated. Allow them to brown on the bottom, then toss. Brown a bit more and continue to sauté until the pieces are deeply golden. Stir in the garlic and cook another 30 seconds.
Remove from heat and stir in the chives, lemon zest, a light dusting of Parmesan, and optional flaky salt. Serve immediately.
Yield: 2-3 servings; Source: 101 Cookbooks